Donald Trump’s supporters are the people who have been left behind by successive waves of economic change. They are the people who in the space of a generation have seen solid, stable manufacturing jobs turn into short-term, unstable, low-paid service industry jobs – or worse, into unemployment. They are the people who lost out to free trade – whose jobs went to China and India, and who gained nothing from what came back in return. They are the people who fell through the cracks of the economic recovery Barack Obama has overseen since 2008, just as they fell through the cracks of every recovery since the 1980s, and that has taught them to distrust statistics in general and politicians in particular. They’re voting for Trump because the current political status quo has given them nothing and perhaps burning it down will make things better in the end.
Donald Trump’s supporters are the people who have been unable to accept or adapt to the cultural change around them. Around a hard-core of white nationalist racists is a mass of support drawn from people who have seen the nature of their communities change due to immigration, equal marriage and secularisation. They are people who don’t understand why TV needs to have so many gay characters, especially in shows children might be watching, or why young people listen to hip-hop, and who feel like the values they grew up with – respect for authority and a sense of white, Christian identity – are under constant attack from an urban, liberal elite. They’re voting for Trump because he stands up and says the things they believe in blunt ways that make the dog-whistling of other Republicans seem cowardly.
Which of those statements is true? That’s become one of the biggest questions in political science – not just with regard to Donald Trump, but with regard to the rise of radical populism, both on left and right, across Europe and much of the developed world. The economic explanation has more devotees. The cultural explanation has a growing body of evidence behind it. Parties supporting both camps tug back and forth.
Support for Trump in economically depressed, traditionally Democrat-leaning towns of the Rust Belt and the North East is presented as a knock-out blow for the Economics camp. The Culture camp counters by noting that the average income of a Trump supporter is actually above the national average for people of their demographic group; those backing Trump are not, by any means, the economically hardest-hit of the nation.
Neither camp is entirely convincing. The reason for that is simple; neither factor, taken in isolation, can adequately explain support for Donald Trump (or for Europe’s radical populist parties, or for Brexit). By arguing for the supremacy of one argument over another, political scientists ignore two important things.
Firstly, political support is always a coalition, not a hive mind. There is space within Trump’s support base – currently standing, according to the polls, at between 38 and 40 per cent of the US electorate, or around 90 million voters – for people motivated by economic factors, people motivated by cultural factors, people motivated by a mixture of both and even, undoubtedly, people motivated by other things entirely (like the suggested group of evangelical Christian voters who have reportedly convinced themselves that God’s plan is to put Trump in office and then have him die or resign so that the right-wing Christian VP candidate, Mike Pence, can take his place). There is no theoretical requirement for a single factor to be able to explain a majority, or even a significant plurality, of a candidate’s support.
Secondly, economic hardship and cultural intolerance are not independent of one another. One of the things you always have to look out for in any kind of political research is correlation between the factors you’re investigating. Treating two factors as being independent, when they actually interact with one another or with other variables in some important way, can seriously break the model you’re trying to build.
That’s almost certainly what’s happening here. It’s not as simple as “poor people are more intolerant than rich people” – that’s both a gross oversimplification, and provably untrue in much of the data available. However, there are lots of ways in which those factors may interact that are a little more complex and worthy of consideration.
Take for example the urban-rural divide. Urban communities in the USA are overwhelmingly voting Democrat; rural communities generally go Republican. That pattern is true in polling for this election too; one of the most effective predictors for whether a county will vote Trump or Clinton is its population density. In part, that’s because cities have larger minority populations than the countryside; but urban white people lean more towards Clinton, too.
There are cultural differences between urban whites and rural whites, not least of which is that urban whites live alongside minorities (ethnic, sexual, religious and otherwise) and that experience has been shown to push people towards being more tolerant and liberal. In the UK, the biggest electoral successes for xenophobic far-right parties like the BNP and UKIP came in towns with the smallest numbers of immigrants; familiarity with the Other, well, stops them being the Other. That’s definitely a factor in the Trump support equation.
There are also, however, economic differences between urban whites and rural whites. Urban whites are not necessarily better-off than rural whites (indeed, they’re often less well off), but for the most part the economic opportunity available to them is greater. They live in diverse cities where the end of one kind of industry usually means the springing up of another. Metropolises do die on occasion, but it’s rare; mostly a period of decay following the decline of an old industry is followed by new businesses moving in to take advantage of lowered costs. Rural areas, though? Small towns and villages? When they die, they die. One factory closing can turn a small community into a ghost town; people who have the mindset and the opportunity to move to a city do so, and what remains is a zombie village, lurching forward through inertia but likely doomed to decay and decline forever.
In short, a rural white voter may have cultural differences from his urban cousin, but he also has a key economic difference; even if he’s doing fine personally (though again other factors come into play – is he doing as well as his father did, or worse? Perceptions of economic conditions are highly influenced by expectations, after all), he may be surrounded by a community in decline, driving past boarded-up windows every day, constantly reminded that his income and lifestyle is fragile, and fearful that his country has forgotten his kind of town even exists.
See how that imaginary voter ends up being a melange of both economic and cultural factors? My hypothesis is this; Trump’s voters are generally motivated by a little from column A and a little from column B. For those who harbour racist, xenophobic, homophobic or otherwise regressive social sentiments, they were willing to just roll their eyes at the multicultural liberals in the cities and calmly vote for mainstream, non-populist candidates as long as their communities remained economically stable and prosperous. These towns may not have been the most welcoming places in the world for minorities, but for the most part minorities were not blamed for major problems (a core underlying theme of radical-right populism, and of the Trump campaign specifically) because there weren’t really any major problems to blame them for.
On the flip side of the coin, you’ve got those who have been severely impacted by the economic shake-up of the developed world, and left behind by globalisation and technological progress, but who have not reacted by supporting Trump. That’s because they didn’t have latent regressive sentiments that could be activated by economic hardship (either their own, or that of their community as a whole). They live alongside minorities, or perhaps have minority groups represented in their own family and close friends; they’re college-educated, which in addition to giving them a different context in which to consider and critique Trump and Clinton’s competing claims, has exposed them to many minority groups (even the most conservative colleges have far more opportunties to meet and get to know people unlike yourself than small town communities generally offer). Though times are tough for them, they were never in the potential Trump voting camp, because they don’t have a culturally grounded anger at minority groups which they can shape into blame.
There’s another group worth mentioning; the “always-Republican” group of people for whom voting Republican is part of their identity (though they’d blanch at the thought of actually subscribing to identity politics, oh dear me no), for whom Clinton is too left-wing – and despite her progressive detractors, she is notably more left-wing and progressive than even Barack Obama on almost everything except foreign policy. For this group, and there seem to be a hell of a lot of them, voting Trump is partially about identity, and partially about ideology. They’ll happily admit that the man is a boor, a misogynist, a racist, even a fool; but they worry about the country’s direction under Clinton, and have convinced themselves that Trump will be effectively restrained by the Republican Party and by the nation’s democratic checks and balances, making him into a far more moderate-right leader than any of his own statements and positions have implied.
These people skew the data. They’re not really “Trump supporters”; they’d vote for anyone wearing the GOP badge, or perhaps simply for anyone standing against Clinton. They share some of his views but dislike how he expresses them (the dog whistling was just fine for them). They’re the Republican hardcore, inseperable in the data from the true Trump supporters, and they mess up the statistics; they’re likely older, and richer, and perhaps less religious and more educated than the kind of people who actually wear Make America Great Again baseball caps.
One might also observe that pretty much this exact demographic has also served the function of useful idiots ushering in their reign of every right-wing authoritarian strongman in history – relatively moderate traditional conservatives who give the reins of power to a demagogue in the mistaken confidence that they’ll be able to control him once he’s in charge – but that would be unkind. True; but unkind.
The 90 million or so people who currently say they support Donald Trump (assuming 100% turnout, of course; the actual vote figure will be far lower) is an enormous, diverse demographic. It’s not necessarily diverse in a traditional sense – it’s overwhelmingly white and a bit of a sausage party, with lots of traditionally Republican-supporting women seemingly crossing the aisle this year – but the backgrounds, reasoning and motivations of those in that group are incredibly disparate, which makes a bit of a mockery of attempts to find the Holy Grail, the one, true reason why people are voting Trump.
Perhaps confusing matters even more are the core supporters and true believers – the 13 million people who voted for Trump in the primaries (though some of those early votes were likely half in jest, and some of the late ones made through clenched teeth to keep the arguably even more odious Ted Cruz from the nomination), for example, or the thousands who turn up to his rallies around the country. Their motivations are perhaps more clear, and certainly more clearly telegraphed. Those who picked Trump from among a stable of boring but broadly moderate Republicans, and those who turn up to cheer him on at rallies, have an agenda that’s clearly cultural. A large portion of them are absolutely cheering on the turning back of the clock, the disenfranchisement of ethnic and sexual minorities who have “skipped the queue” at the expense of “real” Americans; they may have been activated by economic hardship, but the cultural base of their grievances, and the racist White Nationalism to which it has led them are extremely clear.
There aren’t very many of these people, though. Even if you accept that every single person who voted for Trump in the Republican primary was doing so on the basis of cultural regressivism and white nationalism – and I think that’s absolutely a ceiling figure, not a realistic estimate – that’s only 13.3 million people, in a country with 225.8 million eligible voters. About 6% of the population voted for Trump in the primaries. His gains from that figure may partially reflect an anger at cultural change, or an anger at economic instability, or more likely a mixture of both, but a much larger component is simple partisanship; Republicans voting Republican because they’ve always voted Republican, and/or because they don’t like the Clintons.
6%. That’s the deep, devoted core of Trump support. A higher percentage than that say they’re going to vote for the bumbling, comedic Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, on November 8, and yet we’re not falling over ourselves to understand why Johnson supporters are the way they are, what has motivated them, and what has activated them. (In fact, we’re also not falling over ourselves to ask why a majority of so many demographic groups are voting for Clinton; it’s only Trump that provokes this fascination.) It’s not that understanding this isn’t worthwhile; I’m a political scientist precisely because I want to understand everything, even while recognising the futility of the quest. Rather, it’s the assumption that the things that have driven and motivated those people should somehow be taken into account, listened to sagely, nodded at in understanding, and allowed to influence the future direction of a nation or even a planet.
6%. That’s smaller – perhaps less than half – than the percentage of the population from whom the 6% would like to remove the right to marry and the right to a family. It’s far, far smaller than the percentage of the population from whom they would deny the right to equal treatment under the law, or to schemes designed to rebalance historical inequalities. White Nationalism truly is White Supremacy; it assumes that a small group of white, conservative and under-educated men should be allowed to dictate the fates of far larger groups of people. This is a dark fantasy that is only fed and watered by earnest hand-wringing over their motivations and reasoning.
Of course, improving the economic conditions of everyone – yes, even racists, I guess – should be the role of goverment; the decline of communities and the installation of a safety net and alternative path for those impacted by globalisation and technological progress should be a priority. It shouldn’t be a priority because of Trump’s support; it should be a priority because it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps it will head off future waves of populism; the literature on cultural backlash suggests otherwise, but it certainly can’t hurt, especially if there really is some correlation between cultural intolerance and economic instability.
But when anyone talks about changing policies or slowing down the rate of social progress in order to attune to the desires of the Trump supporter, remember who we’re actually talking about; the 6%. Everyone else is a johnny-come-lately, a fairweather Trumper, a half-hearted enthusiast for anyone wearing a GOP badge on their lapel, a self-deluding cheerleader for a demagogue they assume, despite all evidence to the contrary, to be on some kind of leash (don’t you think that if the Republicans could control Trump, they’d have, well, done it by now?).
Understanding Trump’s support – in terms of cultural identity, in terms of the plight of economically depressed communities, or in whatever other terms are found to make sense – is important. Don’t let anyone tell you that the next step after understanding it should be pandering to it.